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Prudence and positive action

A suggestion is in order: Let us draw a long breath. Over this past weekend, not a single communist regime toppled to the forces of freedom. No poets ascended to high office; no famous political prisoners went free; no pacts were signed. Considering what has gone before, it was a most unremarkable weekend. This correspondent lately has been traveling back and forth across the nation, talking with all kinds of people. The conversations always drifted to foreign affairs, and everywhere the head-shaking reaction was the same. Incredulity. Disbelief. Hope. Skepticism. Too much has happened too swiftly for it all to be absorbed.

Not even a year has passed since the communist government of Poland signed an agreement to legalize Solidarity. That was on April 7. In June the Solidarity movement, led by Lech Walesa, captured 260 of the 261 seats the union was able to contest. In September a new coalition Cabinet took over, with only four posts assigned to the communists. A year ago, who would have predicted such an ignominious rout?

Who would have predicted events in Hungary? In May of last year the barriers between Hungary and Austria collapsed. In September a multiparty political system came into being. In October Hungary proclaimed itself a free republic.

Events in East Germany have boggled the mind. In September the first trickle of the flood of emigrants began. Thousands of East Germans, voting with their feet, began to stream through Czechoslovakia and Hungary into freedom of the West. The hated Erich Honecker vanished; Egon Krenz came on, to last three weeks as prime minister. The Berlin Wall came tumbling down. Suddenly the reunification of the two Germanys becomes not a possibility but an inevitability.

So it has gone, in Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, even Romania. In the Soviet Union, we see the promulgation of a new constitution that reads as if James Madison had written the draft.

All this has confounded the professional Sovietologists, who have been left gasping in the wake of Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms.

In his brilliant preface to the president's budget message for 1991, budget director Richard Darman compared the events of 1989 to England's Glorious Revolution of 1688 and to the French Revolution of 1789. The comparison is fair. After those tumultuous years, nothing in Europe could be quite the same again. So it is today. The genie of human freedom has escaped from the communist bottle. It cannot be recaptured.

The overarching question before the house is this: How should the United States react? That great conservative, Edmund Burke, is authority for the proposition that "for the statesman, prudence is the primary virtue." True enough _ and surely prudence should advise us not to plunge into massive disarmament. In my travels, I have found uneasiness on a par with optimism. People do not know what to make of Gorbachev. Experience teaches us that when something is "too good to be true," that generally is the fact.

Yet prudence is not the only virtue of statecraft. This is an hour, or so it seems to me, when Congress and the White House should react positively. I am not talking of "bailing out" Hungary or East Germany, as if they were bankrupt American thrifts, but surely this is a moment in which every avenue of commerce and diplomacy should be put to effective use. Opportunities are at hand, in Dale Carnegie's hackneyed phrase, to win friends and to influence people.

On Capitol Hill, the euphoric talk increases of a "peace dividend," to be declared with an end to the Cold War. The 1991 budget calls for $292-billion in defense spending. This can be cut, but it cannot prudently be cut much. Let us first be as certain as certain can be that the probabilities of major conflict have indeed diminished to something approaching zero. Meanwhile, the long breath. The collective West hasn't drawn a long breath in 45 years. Let us draw one now.